Getting Schooled with Los Angeles County’s Public School Origins, 1854-1855

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Universal free public education for elementary through high school age children was still a pretty new concept when the City of Los Angeles opened its first public school at the corner of Spring and 2nd streets in 1855.

Not only that, but the chaos of creating California’s government in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and then the Gold Rush created some problems in establishing a statewide school system.

In 1851, with subsequent amendments, a school law was passed by the legislature and provided for a fund based on the sale and rental of state-owned land; unclaimed estates of deceased residents; a poll tax; and a separate tax of 5 cents for every $100 of assessed property.

Two years later, Congress granted some 5.5 million acres of land to the state for school purposes–a concept applied throughout the country.  The provision was for two sections (always the 16th and 36th) of every township.  In the late 1920s, mineral rights in these lands was also included to accrue to the benefit of schools.

School Fund ledger cover
The marbled paper front cover of an 1854-1858 Los Angeles County School Fund ledger from the Homestead’s collection.

Notably, most of the undeveloped school lands in the state today are in desert areas and revenues now are deposited for the benefit of the state’s retirement system for teachers.  Additionally, because some of the sections set aside had prior existing claims or had other entitlements, the state could choose from other federally held lands as compensation.  Today, there are more than 50,000 acres still owed to California by the feds as “in lieu” or “indemnity” lands.

In July 1853, the Los Angeles Common (City) Council passed its initial ordinance for public schools, creating a three-person Board of Education and a superintendent.  The board members were Stephen C. Foster, a graduate of Yale, who soon became the city’s mayor and attorneys Joseph Lancaster Brent and Lewis Granger.  Brent was then appointed superintendent.

When Foster became mayor in May 1854, he urged the need for improvements in education, observing the little city had over 500 children of school age in its domain.  That month, Foster was appointed superintendent and the board included three members of the common (city) council, W.T.B. Sanford, Francis Mellus, and Manuel Requena.

As for the state school fund, the first apportionments were made in 1854, which is why that original elementary school didn’t open until the following year.  In its collection, the Homestead happens to own the first Los Angeles County School Fund ledger kept to track these apportionments and their disbursements for the first few years of the fund’s history.

Ledger page LA school house
This page’s entries refer to the recently completed Los Angeles city school at Spring and Second streets, which opened on 19 March 1855.

Not suprisingly, the first entry under “Los Angeles City School District” and merely dated “1854” with no month or date, is for “Amt Rec’d from State Treasurer” and consisting of just under $3,000.  In early 1855, another amount, just shy of $1,500 was received by the city treasurer (incidentally, the second city treasurer of Los Angeles, serving in 1851-52, was F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of William and Nicolasa Workman, owners of the Homestead.)

Another early entry from 5 March 1855 concerned a “refund [for the] amount paid G[eorge] Bachelder for taking Census [, the] same having been paid from this fund by error.”  Bachelder was the city marshal, but it is unclear if he conducted a school census and, if so, whether this was outside of his law enforcement duties.

Other early listings concern the rent of existing structures in town for the use of a public school room, before the construction of the dedicated school mentioned above.  For example, J.M.H. Caldwell and Thomas Scully (who was a one-time teacher at William Workman’s private school for his grandchildren in the Workman House and who married into the Yorba family of what is now northern Orange County) were paid $40 per month rent for their buildings in two separate districts within the city.

In spring 1855, there are entries for the new two-story brick school, which was opened on 19 March with William A. Wallace (briefly publisher of the Los Angeles Star newsaper) and Louisa Hayes, sister of the district court judge Benjamin Hayes, responsible for the boys and girls departments, respectively.

Ledger page El Monte
Entries for the El Monte School District, in a town established just a couple of years before by migrants from the American South, includes payments to teachers and for school repairs.

One entry, from 12 April, recorded that superintendent Antonio Franco Coronel, another local politician who was a council member, mayor and later state treasurer and who succeeded Foster, received $345 for payment “to Ira Gilchrist for work done on School House.”  Gilchrist was a local contractor, whose best-known work was the Market House built by Jonathan Temple in 1859 and which became city hall, county offices, and the county courthouse. Subsequent entries for that month went to repairs and furniture for the new school.

There were other school districts at the time, including one in the mission town of San Gabriel, where in April 1854, James F. Burns and Claudius C. Twitchell were instructors.  Burns went on to be Los Angeles County sheriff in the late 1860s and early 1870s.  Harris Newmark, a long-time Los Angeles merchant, recalled in his 1916 memoir that Burns and Twitchell conducted their school in a tent!  There is a record, though, in the ledger from 1854 of María Jesús Ramirez being paid rent for a school house there.

Another local district was the El Monte School District, serving the town formed by migrants from the American South a couple of years earlier.  The instructors there in early 1855 included A.H. Hoyt, E.E. Calhoun, M.L. Maddox, J.P. Shirbaum and J.G. Johnson–evidently tenures were short, as was often the case in rural 19th century American education.  An indication of how tenuous available funds were for paying expenses is indicated on 21 April, when the ledger showed “order being for one hundred and twenty dollars and certificate issued to said Johnson payable when there is [are!] funds.”  School house repairs are also listed as expenses of that district.

Ledger San Gabriel
Disbursements to the San Gabriel School District include teacher salaries to Cornelius C. Twitchell and future county sheriff James F. Burns.

In the farthest southern reaches of Los Angeles County was another mission town with its school district, San Juan Capistrano.  While Thomas Scully was renting his Los Angeles building out for a school in 1854, the following winter he was teaching at San Juan, where he showed unusual durability in remaining there through the span of the ledger to 1858.

The “School Fund” ledger gives a rare glimpse into some of the workings of the nascent Los Angeles County public school system in its infancy and future posts will take us back to see more of what was going on in the system as recorded by this great, early document.

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